Summertime teen thing
by Bruce Rodgers
got to be this cultures most maligned age group. Theyre
chastised for the way they dress, with adults wondering why they adopt
the so-called inmate lookbaggy pants hanging down
to mid-butt, oversized T-shirts and an obsession with immaculate white
athletic shoesas if its not evident that if one feels
oppressed and controlled, one dresses like other oppressed and controlled
Teens are bombarded with confusing messages about how theyre
supposed to behave. Mass media tells them to be cool, be sexy, be
different while teachers and parents tell them to be studious, be
celibate, be differentbut not that other different.
Adults are generally afraid of teens in a crowd or behind the wheel
of a car and suspect they are out to steal, bully or get high. Cops
and retail clerks watch them like a hawk at every chance, insurance
companies label them high risk, their teen clubs are zoned out of
existence, shopping malls want their money but not have them hanging
out, and everywhere they turn someone is telling them to be responsible.
Of course in the adult world, the road to being responsible means
getting a job. Trouble is, its tough for a teenager to get a
job. Last hired, first fired...to use a cliché.
Since teens cant vote, dont look for an outpouring of
support in political circles for job creation programs. Unfortunately,
that might only happen if it is perceived that teens NEED to work
in order to stop them from, say, burning and looting. No one argues
against teens not working, its just that politically no one
cares enough to really do anything about putting teens to work.
In this conservative climate, where market forces supposedly
rule, thats not unexpected. But back in the 70s, along
with disco and polyester, there were job programs for teens. I know,
I ran one.
The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) came into effect
in 1973. Its primary purpose was to provide decent public sector
jobs for people who otherwise would have remained unemployed.
Federal CETA money was given to local government entities to administer.
In 1977, a low-income youth segment was added. I ran a piece of that
program that year and the next in Clay and Platte counties while an
employee with the city of Kansas City, MO in the Urban Affairs department.
My job was to find qualifying kids, mainly through contacts with school
counselors and social service agencies, find jobs for them in the
nonprofit sector, including local governments, and monitor their work
habits. The kids had to remain in school with passing grades, show
up for work and do the work. Usually, I carried a caseload of fifty
or so kids. During the summer, I hired teachers looking for extra
money while school was out. Then our caseload ballooned to nearly
It was not an easy job, even for someone who possesses a liberal attitude
that it is governments responsibility to help people. For someone
who had a conservative bent, who believed in small government,
the program would have amounted to intellectual torture. As in any
government program, those people were there, along with the lazy and
incompetent lacking any political leaning one way or another.
By 1983, after President Reagan was elected, CETA dissolved under
charges of mismanagement and ineffectiveness. Politics creates tax-supported
programs, and politics can kill tax-supported programs, thats
the lesson of the American government. I dont blame conservatives
for killing CETA. Even by 1980, the liberal-leaning union American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has doubts about
CETA. To me, others considered CETA one of those welfare programs,
mainly benefiting inner city kids with parents who didnt vote
or mainly voted Democratic.
But the kids in Clay and Platte counties werent
inner city, and it was unlikely their parents, if both lived with
the kid, voted at all. I had kids on my caseload from Liberty to Weston,
with a few in North Kansas City. All were small town youngsters, mainly
living with a single mom on welfare or in a larger family with two
parents where dad worked all the time just to make ends meet.
Naively, I assumed the kids, their school counselors and the small
town governments would embrace CETA. I was wrong. With the kids, it
was the embarrassment of being classified as low-income
or poor, for the school counselor it was having a big city
bureaucrat come in to get them involved in something they didnt
help create or get paid for, and for small town government administrators,
it was putting kids to work who probably didnt want to work.
All the culture clashes and stereotypic viewpoints were there, including
opposing racial attitudes.
The first year, I had problems finding kids and their parents to participate.
I had problems finding local nonprofits or town governments who would
admit that they could use more employees, even ones they didnt
have to pay. I had problems with school counselors who wouldnt
help me identify and publicize CETA.
And I had a boss at city hall that leaned on me about not using all
the money that was allocated to Clay and Platte counties.
Being liberal is one thing; trying to manage a program
thought up by liberals is way more difficult.
The second year was different. I had parents coming to me seeking
a job for their kid, I had school counselors telephoning asking questions
about eligibility and I had city administrators wanting to know what
kinds of jobs the kids could do. I even had parents lying about their
incomes on application forms so their kid could get a CETA job.
Maybe it was the economy. It was 1978, Jimmy Carter
was president and that malaise word was starting to get
hung on his administration. Maybe it was because people recognized
it was their tax money and they should use it for themselves if they
could. Maybe it was because CETA, though not perfect, was doing something
To me it was. I felt that not because the parents stopped being embarrassed
because I classified their kid as low income or that the small town
people saw me in a more compatible light despite my big city orientation.
No. CETA did something good because some kids were changed.
With their first job, they learned something more about life than
just being in a small town high school and being poor. Some of the
experiences were goodearning moneyand some not so goodputting
up with disrespectful and ignorant adults.
I dont know how many benefited. Maybe one, maybe a hundred.
It doesnt matter. What mattered was that our government was
involved with young people other than sending them to war.
Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at